Welcome back to the Daily Dose, and to the third installment of a new sub-section, Rogue Scholar Salon. A rogue scholar, in popular slang, is someone whose expertise is not specifically tied to their academic training. Organization like http://roguescholar.org/ have taken up the term and built a kind of research nexus, and panels on the “rogue scholar” concept may be found at Roguecom. The Rogue Scholar Salon will agree with the spirit of open inquiry, but will take a slightly different tack as a place dedicated to alternative academics, those who have degrees and specialties but who have decided to pursue them outside the realm of traditional academe. I begin with my friend, colleague and fellow blogger, The Dead Bell (also known as Jennifer Darling, @thedeadbelle). Jennifer has not a single career but several, and like many a rogue scholar (and nearly as many medical humanists carving a niche), her primary interests lay outside her “day job”: medical history (maladies prevalent during the late 1800s to the early 1900s), deviant behavior and society’s attitudes towards women persecuted for not following the norm, and our cultural approach to death, death ritual and grave manners. She is also an artist, exploring similar concepts of bodies, death, machines and gender in her works. I am pleased to host such a diverse scholar on the Daily Dose–I give you The Dead Bell: _________________________________
When I was asked to contribute to The Daily Dose I was extremely flattered. After all, I’m but a fledgling amongst the fascinating and prolific historians and writers featured here. This happens to be a very remarkable time in my life, as I’m in the planning stages of several projects in addition to writing for my site, The Dead Bell. To begin with I’m one of those people whose primary interests lie outside of the scope of their day job. Professionally I am a special education teacher in an inner-city environment. I have a B.S. degree in Sociology and Criminal Justice and an M.S.Ed. in Special Education. After graduating with my Bachelor’s I worked in Child Protective Services for a year and a half before making the career switch. I enjoyed social work in the sense that I was able to put my “detective” skills to use and observe the human condition in raw form, but as you can imagine one can easily become burned-out dealing with child abuse on a daily basis. The definitive moment that I knew I needed to find another career came the day I was sent to the morgue to photograph an abused/neglected infant. Less than a year later I was employed in the public school system.
Since then I’ve dabbled in a variety of hobbies and interests including mixed media art, curating local art shows, and hosting an indie market (The Southeastern Swag Market). Many of my paintings and other artistic creations reflect my fascination with human anatomy: particularly the relationship between the physical form and one’s emotional state as well as the body’s machine-like qualities.
In April 2010 my grandmother died. Then two months later my grandfather died. Being in my thirties I began to look at death and mortality in a new and sometimes-debilitating light. Rather than running from the fear of the inevitable, I buried myself in information about death and burial customs. Graveyards are a peaceful contrast to the chaos of regular life and in spending time in cemeteries, I’ve found new inspiration. The Dead Bell began as a place for me to highlight some of these interesting cemeteries. I’m intrigued by gravestone symbolism and architecture, especially in southern rural cemeteries from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There’s a story beneath each headstone and it’s gratifying to discover all of the micro-histories that have been forgotten over time. My current obsession is with Green Hill Cemetery, a local historic treasure. This particular graveyard represents people from paupers in unmarked graves to wealthy families memorialized by giant statues and obelisks. I’ve spent hours researching names on stones and available burial and genealogical records, such as census mortality schedules. This is something which many might find morbid, but you can learn a great deal about the history of a particular geographic location from the causes of death of its interred. For example, I knew child and infant mortality rates were high during the above mentioned time period, but seeing family burial plots containing the graves of three, four, or more children really illustrates the magnitude of those death rates. The sociologist in me is delighted to stumble upon data about gender roles, the social classes, and crimes of the past. I have uncovered suicides, murders, accidental gunshot wounds, drownings, a fetus thrown in a river, death following abortion, opium overdoses, and a variety of other diseases and life-claiming accidents. Many of these vignettes played out within just a few miles of my current residence, which is a very surreal feeling. These people may have never mingled with one another in life, but in death their bodies rest within the same cemetery gates. The sobering truth is that death does not care about your money or your social standing.
Researching various maladies prevalent during the late 1800s to the early 1900s relates to my longtime fascination with medical history. One area of my research involves mental illness and how society’s attitudes towards those conditions have changed over time. Having been personally affected by mental illness I am particularly interested in how women “diagnosed” with conditions such as female hysteria, neurasthenia, and nervous prostration were treated, both in terms of the prescription for the ailment as well as the stigma created by such a diagnosis.
I’m also exploring deviant behavior and society’s attitudes towards women who go against the grain or who were persecuted for not following the norm. My interest in this topic began as a pre-teen during the “heavy metal leads to devil worship” craze in the 1990s Holiness Pentecostal church. I was wrongfully treated as an outcast for listening to “evil rock music” which led me to read books about the Salem witch trials and religious persecution. Now, as a female with visible tattoos I’m attracted to tattoo trends in American history, from the subtly inked aristocracy to the highly-decorated sideshow performer.
While these topics seem scattered I consider them to be character research for a work of fiction that I would like to pen loosely based on some of the lives that I’ve read about, with some creative license of course. In the meantime I will continue to write about the real-life people, places, trials, tribulations, and deaths that I unearth.